In an effort to keep young people from entering a damaging series of physical and emotional romantic entanglements followed by painful break ups, a number of writers have appealed, “save your heart for your future spouse!” They claimed that every time you had your heart broken, it became lessened in some way, and was now less special because you had an emotional attachment to someone other than the one you would marry. You had given away a piece of your heart and no longer had your whole heart to give. The pure un-bruised and unbroken heart was more valuable to your spouse and would make your love deeper and more fulfilling. It was an idea that sounded good on the surface, and appealed to parents and young people alike. But I believe presenting the message in these terms has put a fatal twist on the truth and is creating devastating consequences.
The side effects:
In a world of deceptive hearts longing for love, it is just a matter of time before someone breaks yours. The only way to avoid having your heart broken is to never love and never hope. People who choose to love will give parts of their heart away and will be hurt. For the vast majority of young people who have loved and been hurt, it’s a discouraging thought that their chances of a quality marriage are tied to whether or not their heart has been broken.
When you sense that something precious has been lost, there follows the feeling of “why bother anymore?” If you are carrying around a crystal cup and you know that it is only valuable whole and intact, how careful are you going to be with it once it shatters? This is the story of many young women who had a vision of giving their whole heart to their future husband. An infatuation got out of control, or maybe even a parent-blessed courtship went the wrong way. Now, because they have loved and lost, their pristine heart is gone. They no longer have that unblemished heart, so why even try to continue the fight for emotional purity?
For others, this whole-heart perspective leads to false expectations that a shortcut to a great marriage is simply to never love anyone but the person you marry. But there are no short cuts. A girl raised by nuns, having never seen a boy – does this alone make her great spouse material? Does a heart that has never been tested or felt pain contain a greater capacity to love? Are you better equipped to handle the stresses and irritations of marriage because you have never loved another person? Are you a more selfless person because you have never been in a romantic relationship?
A conceited self image
When you believe your heart is more valuable because you have never said “I love you” to a romantic partner or have never been through a painful break up, there will be a strong temptation to feel smug about your worth and look down on those who have been hurt by wrong choices. You may turn your nose up at a potential suitor who has been in a previous relationship because you “deserve better.”
A truly valuable heart
The heart that God wants is not one that has never been broken. In fact, Psalm 51:17 (NKJV) states, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart— these, O God, You will not despise.”
The heart that is valuable to God and your spouse is not one that has never suffered but one that is soft and tender. A heart that is quick to forgive and full of kindness. An empathetic heart that showers grace. A heart that hopes and believes all things. These are all attributes that come from a heart that has been refined by God, broken of pride and self-reliance, its self-righteous attitude burned away.
If you want a good marriage, don’t look for a heart that has never been broken or hurt. Look for one that understands grace, one that is awash in God’s complete forgiveness. Jesus taught that the heart that has been forgiven much is the one that loves deeply. We have all been forgiven much, but until we go through pain and disappointment, it is easy to think we are pure on our own. Time spent in God’s presence shows us how black and dirty our hearts really are. It is misleading to think that because you have never been in a romantic relationship, your heart is automatically pure. Our hearts are all cesspools of pride, jealousy, lustful thoughts, and insecurities. We need to have them broken so that we turn to God and seek his healing. No matter what is in your past, God can restore your heart. Your past mistakes and broken relationships can be used by him to make your heart tender and understanding. In marriage, even if you have been in love before, you still have the choice of giving your whole heart to your spouse. It is not a onetime gift, but one you must offer daily.
Does emotional purity matter to God?
I’m not advocating reckless loving just because God can use the pain for good. A heart that has grown calloused and jaded by the repeated misuse of the gift of sex and romance is not one that will love easily either. The goal should be a heart that is completely surrendered to and satisfied by God. A heart that is filled with God’s love is the one that can love selflessly and abundantly.
Our purity and holiness matter to God. The Bible calls us to sexual purity in numerous places, strongly and even graphically at times. But the need for purity goes deeper than just the physical realm. We can become sexually impure in our thoughts and emotions as well. The consequences of impurity can be reaped even before there is physical contact.
Is it ever wrong to love?
I read a blog post complaining about the dangers of emotional purity and a commenter said that “it is never wrong to love.” Well, love is such broad word and there are many different kinds of it. Christ-like love that is always seeking to affirm and meet other people’s needs is, of course, never wrong. But there are harmful actions that can be categorized under culture’s title of love. When a pedophile “loves” a child, or a husband “loves” a prostitute, this kind of “love” can be damaging.
In fact, every kind of human love can be twisted into a destructive force if God is not the ruler of the heart. A mother’s love of her child can become stifling and controlling. A friendship can lead to a mutual disregard for human decency. Un-surrendered sexual love can cause a man’s whole ministry to go up in flames. It’s dangerous to think that all expressions of emotional adoration are harmless.
What makes a good love bad?
When a human love grows into a controlling passion, it becomes an idol, a new god dictating what is right and wrong. God has a moral order for society, and He has revealed commands that we are to obey: seek sexual fidelity to your wife before and after marriage, to always be grateful and content, to not worry or be anxious, to trust Him and follow His leading, to forgive freely, to not steal what doesn’t belong to you, to honor your parents, to glorify God in whatever you do, and to worship Him in spirit and in truth. When a passion for a person or thing becomes so strong that we disregard these commands for our life, that once-good passion warps into a destructive force. If you are conflicted between following your love and obeying one of God’s commands, then your love is in danger of becoming an idol.
The Unique challenge of male/female relationships
As a man, I cannot indiscriminately love all women in the same way. I am to love every woman in a Christ-like way. I think this involves seeking to protect and honor them. Praying for their health and spiritual well being. Serving and caring for them. In other words, following Jesus example of the way He treated women during his time on earth. When Jesus talked with the woman at the well and let a prostitute anoint his feet with oil, He prioritized meeting these women’s needs even above his own reputation. He risked being sneered at or judged inappropriate if it meant giving these outcast women what they really needed. In following Christ’s example, there should be a freedom to love and encourage one another.
However, we are sexual beings and this creates a challenge we need to be aware of. God placed within men and women unique physical characteristics that make attraction between the genders possible. A switch flips and suddenly the man and woman are like magnets. This puts male/female relationships in a completely different category than girl/girl or guy/guy friendships. Because of basic human guy/girl chemistry, if there is too much time spent together, the attraction switch can be flipped at any moment for one or both of them. The effect of kindled desire can be overwhelming, making wrong appear right. It’s difficult to achieve the goal of guys and girls being “just friends.” I would love to be able sit here and write out a definitive list of what constitutes “appropriate behavior” between single men and women, but each situation is different. So instead, I challenge you to apply some biblical truths to your interactions with the opposite gender.
Biblical guidelines for emotionally pure friendships
Jesus said that whoever lusts after a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matt 5:27) This rules out day-dreaming and fantasizing about a friend in a sexual way or a way that stirs your sexual desire.
I think the heart of the biblical version of emotional purity is summed up best in these verses, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you should know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one should take advantage of and defraud his brother in this matter, because the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also forewarned you and testified. For God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness. Therefore he who rejects this does not reject man, but God, who has also givenus His Holy Spirit.” (1 Thess. 4:2-8 NKJV)
The God who designed us with sexual and emotional attraction also cares about the effect we have on other people. He wants to fulfill our desires in the safe confines of marriage. But to stir up these desires in a member of the opposite sex when you are not in a position to righteously fulfill them is defrauding. Do we want to make other people’s goal of sexual and emotional purity more of a struggle than it already is?
Put others’ needs ahead of your own.
We are commanded to look out not only for our own needs and interests but also the interests of others. (Phil 2:1-5) This means we can’t just review our encounters with others to see if we stayed pure. We need to be sensitive to the effect we had on others. A guy may feel very relaxed around women and is being what others would consider “forward.” Because his actions are not stirring his desires, he thinks he is acting appropriately. But what effect is he having on the women? Are his actions motivated by a desire to edify and focus the woman’s attention on God? Or is this a game he is playing because his sense of worth is found in getting a woman to fall for him?
We live in a sex-saturated culture where our value is often determined by our level of sex appeal. It’s easy to secretly wonder if we are considered attractive by the opposite sex. Not just in “do people think I’m kind or funny?”, “but do people think I am sexually attractive?” If our worth is not found in the depths of God’s love for us or the reality that He created us, we may let culture’s voice develop in us a psychotic need to be considered sexually attractive in order to feel valuable. A strong desire to be found attractive is going to make pure friendships very challenging.
I think perhaps that one of the reasons God gave us our sex drive was to show us how strongly He desires to have a relationship with us. A husband longing for his wife is an image God returns to again and again. God desires you and finds you beautiful. Human sexual love is not dirty or unspiritual: God created it, after all. He knows how to satisfy that desire. When a soul’s desires are satisfied by God, we can enter the world of male/female relationships with a desire to serve and edify others, and make God – not ourselves – look attractive.
A healthy reason for emotional purity
Proverbs 4:23 (NIV) warns us, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” We need to be mindful of what our heart is becoming obsessed with and when our desires are becoming rebellious. This desire to protect our heart should be to glorify God in all we do. It should not be motivated by a fear of being hurt. All love involves risk. To open your heart to someone is to put your shield down and become vulnerable to pain. To love a fallen human is to be hurt and disappointed. Why else would we need to be commanded to forgive so often? Some of our greatest joys can be found in relationships with others. But we can only be truly satisfied by human relationships when we are satisfied first by God. The only hope of achieving emotional purity, i.e. a heart free from ruinous passions, is to be caught up in the wonder and beauty of God and what He has done for us. We cannot conquer our idols by self-denial or following restrictive guidelines. Our hearts are far too deceptive for that. If we remove an idol but don’t replace it with the enjoyment of God, another idol will quickly fill the void.
Infatuations, crushes, and romantic whirlwinds are powerful forces and we need to be cautious about them, or we may find ourselves being swept away. True emotional purity cannot be found in the “don’ts”: Don’t have crushes, don’t give your heart away, don’t defraud. If all we have are the don’ts, we become obsessed with them in our efforts to beat down desire. We need a positive focus: Do become infatuated with God, do give Him your heart, do glorify God in your creative works and conversations.
If you grew up in a Christian home, you probably have heard many times how we need to put away our idols and love and worship God instead. But if your Christianity is based on your efforts of self-improvement, you will always fail miserably in this area. It is impossible to create the feelings of love and adoration in yourself. If you are taking inventory of your heart and looking inside, you will not find love for God. Love and worship can only be found in having our eyes opened to the goodness and beauty of God. Our love for God grows as we are grateful and count our blessings, when we take a walk in nature and admire His creation, and when we meditate on His love letters for us found in the Bible. We can only love God when our eyes are on Him.
Navigating the world of interactions with the opposite gender can be awkward and confusing. Your heart will always be on the lookout for someone to latch on to. That’s okay. That is the way God made you. He said is not good for us to be alone. Don’t try to control your heart or interactions simply with rules. Your strong desires need to be captivated by God, entranced by His beauty. This is not a picture of striving and self-flagellation. We all crave beauty. God and the gifts He gives us are the most satisfying sources of beauty available. This love for God does not mean you will no longer crave human love or sexual desire. These desires are good and beautiful in the proper place. What it means is you have a true Friend with whom you can be open and honest about all your crushes and turn your human infatuations into prayers for the other person.
Human interactions will still be challenging, full of dilemmas over what is appropriate, but with God on the throne of your heart, the journey through will be that much clearer and more enjoyable.